Lord, don’t give us this day our just deserts.

The artwork I have been using for some time as the banner picture on my blogsite comes from a set of murals in Coit Tower in San Francisco. On a visit a couple of years back I was taken with the utopian feel, so characteristic of social and political art from the early decades of the 20th century. As Fall has approached I have switched the banner from a busy urban street market scene to that of the countryside where we see a romantic image of the rural idyll at harvest time.

In the world of this picture we see clean and suitably attired men and women contentedly working at gathering-in the harvest. To our eyes it’s quite a gendered picture, yet it presents an image of a community working together in pursuit of the common good.

This picture is a depiction of human hope in a period of hopelessness as the long grinding years of the Great Depression wind towards their conclusion. In the darkest of days this picture captures the desire of our collective imagination. This is a dream of full and constructive employment. Men and women working in jobs that sustain order and provide the protection of livelihood. This is a vision of employment that generates the resources not only to meet the daily needs of individuals and their families, but is capable of generating the wealth a society needs for the preservation of social a sense of the common good.

For me, the murals of Coit Tower represent a very early and mid 20th century dream. I note with some sadness that as the 20th century progressed the dream became tarnished and so it now seems not to be a 21st century dream. This is a dream that becomes imaginable only as a result of the Industrial Revolution with its need for mechanized and organized labor.

The scene that unfolds for us in Matthew 20:1-6 represents the predominant picture of employment prospects prior to the Industrial revolution. For most of history the scene from Matthew is the norm. Men whose only resource is the hiring-out of their bodies in manual labor, gather at the break of each day on the off chance that they might be hired through a process of random selection. Being hired meant food on the table that day, not being hired meant hunger.

However, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard is, sadly, not a situation consigned to history. It’s a scene that is played out daily in our own time in countless Home Depot parking lots throughout cities like Phoenix, Arizona, and in small agricultural towns throughout Southern California and the South West. Here undocumented migrant workers almost exclusively from Central America, wait under the trees in the searing heat,  in the hope that a building contractor or farm foreman will offer a day’s under-the-radar employment.

At the heart of Matthew’s depiction of Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard lies an ancient social tension between justice and love. I mention the plight of undocumented migrant workers only to indicate that in our own time we seem to be no better than our forbears at managing the social tension between justice and love.

Social stability and prosperity requires the exercise of justice. Justice is enshrined for our Western Societies in the concept of the Rule of Law. The Rule of Law sets out, governs, and adjudicates our social relations with one another.

Justice not only governs our external relations, it is also internalized within us in notions of what is fair and equitable. For this reason, we are confronted by the parable of the workers in the vineyard. It actually scandalizes us. We are scandalized by the notion that working all day under the hot sun is worth the same amount of remuneration as working only the last hour before sunset. The parable presents us with a situation we instinctively feel is unfair, unjust, and corrosive of good order in society. This parable presents us with an invitation that is deeply uncomfortable and disconcerting.

Firstly, the parable of the workers in the vineyard invites us to confront the selectivity with which we apply our sense of justice. We do truly, cherish notions of fairness and equity, here presented in the idea of a fair remuneration for a fair days work. Yet, we live in a society where people are not paid fairly or equitably in relation to the amount their labor contributes to the prosperity of an enterprise. We remain blind to the inequities that abound in a society where women routinely earn less than men for the same fair day’s labor. We choose to deny the reality that levels of low pay have an adverse economic effect in a society where the economic engine is dependant on consumer consumption. It seems that most of us content ourselves with limiting the application of our cherished notions of what is fair and what is just to the arenas of our own self interest, and others be dammed.

Secondly, this parable makes us deeply uncomfortable because it presents us with something that makes no sense to us. When faced with the actions of the land owner, I hear in my head the voice of that old tin-can computer in the 1970’s TV program Lost in Space robotendlessly reciting: it does not compute, it does not compute! 

We have journeyed over the summer through Matthew’s narration of the early and middle sections of Jesus’ ministry. Again, and again we have been presented with something that deeply upsets us, namely the reckless generosity of God. It’s bad enough encountering God in the image of a farmer who recklessly scatters the seed at planting. For us, whose thinking is so dominated by notions of economic productivity, the actions of God as the farmer appear as down-right crazy and negligently inefficient. To add insult to injury today we are confronted by the image of God as this landowner who similarly scatters his coin in the same way he scatters his seed. None of this computes in our way of thinking.

In society, and within our own thinking we are engaged in the struggle between justice, on the one hand, and love, on the other. Speaking personally, I don’t like the way the love of God seems to challenge if not obliterate the notions of justice by which I live my life. I don’t like the implications that love trumps just deserts, of love trampling over notions of worthiness and entitlement, proper reward and appropriate punishment. These are notions I hold dear and they support the fantasy that if I live virtuously according to the norms of justice I will be somehow rewarded and protected from the vagaries of chance happenstance. According to this way of thinking misfortune only happens to undeserving people.

The love of God scandalizes the worldview I tenaciously cling to for security. I suspect that the love of God scandalizes all of us. The realization of God as an indiscriminate and reckless lover disturbs our neat ordered little lives. If we allow ourselves to connect with our discomfort, we encounter an invitation to move beyond the way we reconstrict the higher concepts of justice to fit our need for clarity and certainty. Through facing-up to such an invitation we come to see that measured notions of fairness and equity are no substitute for the the generosity of love.

We favor regulated and constricted notions of justice to support us in the illusion that what we have is ours, the fruit of our own toil. We believe in our own virtuous, hard working entitlement. In the image of the generous land owner, God discomforts our secure assumption that we are the hard working laborers who have toiled from dawn to dusk. Do we not seethe with outrage when we see the lazy and the indolent given rewards they have not worked for?

We are disturbed by the reckless generosity of God only if we think we are among the deserving, those who are owed a reward commensurate with our hard work and responsible toil. But, what if our self confident self assertion of our own worthiness means nothing to God? What if it’s you and me that God has us in mind as the needy recipients of his reckless generosity? What then?

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